We all bring our own biases and expectations to stories that make us subjectively like or not like a book. Some might not like the unconventional ending of this book because it doesn't neatly wrap up the story. I thought its ambiguity gave the themes more depth. Was the world of Aquavania all pretend? Was it a metaphor for romantic love and saving a girl in distress? Was it a symbol of the protagonist growing up and leaving the imaginative world behind to face reality?
Twelve-year-old Alistair's neighbor Fiona suddenly shows up at his door one day and asks him to write her biography. She explains that his creative story in 6th grade made her choose him because he can believe in the impossible. Her story involves a gateway in their basement into an alternate world called, Aquavania, where stories are born and children can create any world they think up. An evil being called, Riverman, has invaded Aquavania and is taking the souls of children so that they cannot return to the mortal world. Fiona wants Alistair's help finding the Riverman and stopping him. The problem is that the more she reveals about Aquavania, the more it relates to real life situations and less real it seems as the story goes on. Alistair wonders if Fiona is imagining Aquavania as an excuse to run away from home.
The content is gritty, crude (at times) and scary. Aaron Starmer's book is well-written. I couldn't put it down, which says a lot because I wanted to put it down. Starmer captures middle school in all its ugliness. The crude sex jokes. The drinking parties. The bad kid's like Kyle that carry knives and are violent. I really did not like that time of my life when I made good and bad choices and felt more awkward than comfortable in my own skin. Middle school can be a time when your crowd of so-called friends turn on you for no reason. It can be a time when peers toy with drinking, drugs, and sex not really understanding the consequences. When Alistair, Kyle, and Charlie play a game of hiding in an large empty box in the middle of the road to see if a car would run them over, I thought, "Yep, that reminds me of some of the stupid things I saw in middle school."
A subplot has Alistair falling in love for the first time with Fiona. He is more interested in the mystery of Fiona than finding out about her. His love is immature and focused on saving her from the Riverman. The Riverman steals souls and stories. In real life the Riverman stole Alistair's story suggesting he uses Alistair for his own personal gain and glory. I did want more character development on the Riverman and his motivations which I hope occurs in the sequel. The ending teases many possibilities but gives no answers. The Riverman preys on children's emotional needs in both worlds; however, if he doesn't exist then maybe he is a symbol of first love. Alistair admits he has no real friends at school and made me wonder if he wants a girlfriend to feel like he belongs to a group. What is striking about the story is how realistic it is inspite of having an alternate fantasy world. Charlie makes crude sexual references at a girl and later Alistair is asking for protection for Fiona but its sounds like he wants sex with her when he is referring to physical protection.
The author layers many messages throughout with many ambiguous answers. Starmer's book is the opposite of an idyllic world and represents today's unsafe world that is riddled with school shootings, terrorists, and technological warfare. This is not a book meant to protect the child from the world. It presents its harsh realities and looks at adolescent reactions and emotions. Even Aquavania is not free from evil. It starts out looking like paradise but when Fiona wishes a marsupial into her rainforest she upsets the ecosystem causing the giraffes to die off. People try to slip into alternate worlds to find happiness whether it is in gaming or the creation of Aquavania, but their idyllic worlds never come to fruition. They are only temporary escapes from reality.
Kyle is a violent character that is not completely bad. He just makes bad choices over and over again. He is a foil to Alistair who can't embrace the bad-boy image completely. Charlie as the Riverman is the one that left me scratching my head. Why is he so obsessed with Alistair? Is it because of Alistair's writing ability? Or is it because as his best friend he can't tolerate Alistair with another friend replacing him? Or is he in love with Alistair? Is he an old person in a young boy's body? Time changes differently in Aquavania than in on Earth. Fiona tells Alistair she's been gone 12 years, but to him it is one day. Charlie wants Alistair to win his video game so badly he won't let him stop playing it. Is life a game and he's so power hungry he has to be on the top at all costs? The Riverman appears to like controlling Alistair and their friendship. He steals souls and stories. He stole Alistair's story in the real world. The Riverman preys on children's emotional needs. Is he a symbol of Alistair feeling like he has no real friends at school and wants a girlfriend to feel like he belongs to a group? There is plenty to talk about with this book with its ambiguities and open-ending. The sequel comes out in March. I'm hooked. I wonder where the heck the author is going to go with this plot.